Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Neocon bigwig Robert Kagan Kaplan on the virtues of war and chaos

Robert Kaplan, one of the leading neocons has a new think piece out, America Is Fated to Lead The National Interest 12/22/2014 (Jan-Feb 2015 issue).

Two points are especially worth notice.

One is that Kaplan justifies the neocons' much-desired and very disastrous war in Iraq with the argument that, hey, so we left chaos behind, so what? It's the fault of fate, or God, or something.

The second is a related rhetorical move, to declare it realism to not worry to too much about the fact that wars one advocates turns out to be disasters. In other words, it's perfectly fine to go on advocating war and killing without regard to the high possibility of bad outcomes.

This following paragraph sounds almost regretful. But it follows one that blames the whole mess on inadequate administration of the occupation by the Cheney-Bush Administration. Conservatism - including neoconservatism - can never fail, it can only be failed, as Digby likes to say.

I supported the Iraq War. I mention this whenever publicly discussing the issue. I was not in favor of exporting democracy. Anyone who knows my work knows that I have seen the benefits of enlightened dictatorship in many instances, and still do. But Saddam Hussein’s regime was not a dictatorship: it constituted a suffocating totalitarianism somewhere south of Stalin and north of the Assads in Syria. I knew it intimately from several reporting trips to Iraq in the 1980s, and thus I was a journalist who had gotten too close to his story. In short, I became committed. Yet, no matter how Iraq turns out in the future, even if there is a sharp improvement and the Islamic State is defeated, the price America paid there will still have been far too steep. The war as it turned out—not how it might have turned out according to some counterfactual — was a disaster.
Fate comes in here:

... there may never have been even the possibility of a soft landing for the Baathist regimes in the Levant [Iraq and Syria], given how much these regimes pulverized society, eviscerating all forms of intermediary social organizations except for the state at the top and the tribe and extended family at the bottom. Whether we acted militarily or not, in Iraq or in Syria, the result in any event was going to be anarchy. This is fatalism, I know. It denies human agency — and, therefore, moral responsibility on our part. But while that might be reprehensible, it does not necessarily make my assertion false. [my emphasis]
Do I need to say that anyone with a reasonably decent conscience would think that if the result was going to be the same either way that it was horribly immoral to initiate a war that killed hundreds of thousands of people in Iraq and turned millions into refugees?

So, Kaplan in this essay expresses his admiration for "the benefits of enlightened dictatorship" and his contempt for the idea of promoting democracy with the wars he advocates. And says that this mysterious Fate of which he speaks exempts him and other war advocates from "moral responsibility on our part."

His manipulation of the concept of foreign policy realism involves a peculiar reading of the Nixon Administration's decision to establish a new relationship with China as part of a way to exploit the Sino-Soviet split. This was an important moment in US foreign policy, not least because the dogmatic policy that the US had pursued since the victory of the Chinese Communists and establishment of the People's Republic in 1949 had been particularly brainless, driven by ideology, ignorance and fringy rightwing politics.

Kagan's conclusion: "Thus does an amoral strategy, in the service of a naked national interest, have a moral result."

I read this odd string of arguments as a pitch for the idea that it doesn't matter that we pursue an immoral and/or illegal policy, it's okay because it make work out for the best. And if it doesn't, it's because of Fate, and the bad result would have happened anyway.

It's also notable that Kaplan fills his essay with seemingly scholarly references, that don't really amount to much more than name-dropping in the middle of his sloganeering: Dean Acheson, conservative Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges, conservative French philosopher Raymond Aron, Zbigniew Brzezinski, the liberal philosopher Isaiah Berlin, Bernard DeVoto, Patrick Leigh Fermor, historian Orlando Figes, Herodotus, Samuel "Clash of Civilizations" Huntington, famous foreign policy Realist George Kennan, neocon heavyweight Jeane Kirkpatrick, unindicted war criminal Henry Kissinger, and William Shakespeare.

He adds in various historical references and some geographical blather about America's "navigable inland waterways" and such to promote his ideas about Fate.

Kaplan's praise of historian and literary critic Bernard DeVoto strike me as odd. Kaplan describes him as "my personal hero, a once-celebrated literary figure now forgotten." I haven't forgotten him. I still periodically consult one of his three books on my bookshelf for this or that about the history of the American West.

Based on those books, and on DeVoto's liberal interventionist inclinations prior to Pearl Harbor - inclinations widely shared by Democrats at the time - Kaplan writes, "he saw the good in Manifest Destiny before generations of academics would see nothing but evil in it. Yet he also understood — perhaps at a more profound level than anyone else, before or since — that the blessings of geographical fate had freighted America with global responsibilities." And he draws the conclusion, that I doubt DeVoto himself ever would have stated this way, "If you haven’t internalized moments like the California gold rush and westward expansion, you can’t fully grasp why America deserves to lead." (emphasis in original)

DeVoto's patriotism and admiration of the historical accomplishments in American history certainly didn't prevent him from describing the antiwar attitude of Emerson and Thoreau toward the Mexican War and that complexity of that conflict, a major chapter in the story of US westward expansion. His jaundiced description of the President James Polk's leadership in that war is particularly memorable. (See DeVoto's The Year of Decision, 1846; published 1943).

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